Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum has experienced more tumult over the past 14 months than most players with her pedigree deal with in a career. Due to a host of factors outside her control since being selected with the top pick of the 2017 WNBA draft, the NCAA's all-time leading scorer has struggled to find her place on the team.
Before the team was sold, the front office remained undecided about choosing Plum until draft night—former general manager Ruth Riley and former head coach Vickie Johnson differed on whether to pick Plum —and both the bitterness and ambivalence about playing her lingered into the season. Plum did not get much playing time in her first season, hampering her growth and adding pressure to perform when she did play. Then the franchise was sold and moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas and Riley and Johnson were let go, only to see newly installed coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer re-hire Johnson as an assistant.
It was striking, then, to see Plum smile serenely, reflecting on her career-to-date prior to last week’s game against the New York Liberty, and express simply: “God has a plan for me.”
Yes, faith in a higher power helps, but it doesn't hurt that slightly further down the chain of command, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer has a plan for Plum, too. On June 8, Laimbeer inserted Plum into the starting lineup, giving her a chance at a set role, significant minutes, and an opportunity to run the league's fastest-paced offense.
For Laimbeer, the decision was as much educational as based on merit.
“I really still don't know who she is, but I thought that it was important for her to get the time,” Laimbeer said, sitting on the sideline prior to last Wednesday’s game. “Just to see what she can do. Especially with the starting unit. Now, [Aces backup point guard] Lindsay Allen did a great job for us. I told [Allen] that, but at the same time it's still a situation [where] we have to build a team and understand who we have and what we are about our future, not so much [play for] this year. I don't see a 1 percent chance of us winning the championship this year. So, I need to do player development and understand what we have going forward.”
What's remarkable in Plum's case is that such a chance wasn't a given. There's no real recent comparison in WNBA history for a top overall pick failing to get regular playing time, and no wonder: teams with the top overall pick are usually awful, with that pick serving as the brightest hope for the future.
Plum's San Antonio team in 2017 was no different, landing that top selection by virtue of a 7-27 record in 2016. The team was stacked in the backcourt, however, with perennial All-Star and 2014's third overall pick pick Kayla McBride and Moriah Jefferson, the second overall pick in 2016. Due to her size, Plum can only really play at guard so the backcourt would be crowded. Still, going into the draft, Riley wanted to take Plum, while Johnson was skeptical of a three-guard lineup. Word got back to Plum's camp, and the two sides worked awkwardly toward a resolution. Eventually, Plum signed, but Johnson never seemed comfortable giving her a role, and it was clear Plum felt added pressure to succeed in the limited time she did get.
She shot 36.5 percent from three as a rookie, but just 34.6 percent from the field overall.The numbers were truly shocking for Plum, who was a handful of missed free throws away from a 50-40-90 season from the field, along with an elite assist percentage, in her senior season at the University of Washington.
But then came the great change, just a few weeks after she left for her offseason gig playing for Fenerbahce of the Turkish league: the Stars were sold, the franchise moved to Las Vegas, and both Riley and Johnson were let go in favor of Laimbeer in the dual role.
Meanwhile, Plum went across the world and, well, resumed being Kelsey Plum. She ran the team, shot 42.5 percent from three and better than 94 percent from the line in her first ten games, lifting one of the better European teams in what is the most competitive overseas league in the world with her play immediately.
“With Plum, I feel like she put too much pressure on herself,” McBride said. McBride saw Plum up close this past winter in Turkey, where she stars for Yakin Dogu, another top Turkish team. “Number one pick, things like that. But she's so talented. She can shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere. But most of the growth I saw from her came overseas. Top to bottom, from October to May, it was a complete 180.”
Plum lavishly praises the Aces, but the change of ownership and scenery wasn't quite the full fresh start it seemed. Laimbeer brought back the person who buried Plum on the bench when he hired Johnson as an assistant to help him better get to know his new players.
"She's so talented. She can shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere."
Plum expresses no bitterness toward Johnson, however, and the two have clearly come to work out an effective relationship. As Johnson came off the floor after working with the Aces about an hour before the Liberty game tipped, she passed us, and she and Plum gave each other a hug, Johnson providing some words of encouragement to Plum as they embraced.
There's a fascinating duality at play in Las Vegas these days, which is to say the Aces are very much not Kelsey Plum's team, even as she's been given the keys to drive the flashy new car. By virtue of another disastrous record in 2017, the Aces landed another top overall pick, and used the selection on A'ja Wilson, the multi-talented forward out of South Carolina.
Laimbeer has put the future onus on Wilson to carry the team, and she's responded, currently fourth in the league in points per game while second in the WNBA in usage, thanks to a true shooting percentage on par with established stars like Tina Charles of the Liberty and Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics.
Even amid this strong start, Wilson seemed to find another level with Plum last Tuesday night in Indiana. Wilson scored 35 points, while Plum played nearly 26 minutes, running the team and dishing out four assists. She's still learning what amounts to the fourth system she's played in the past 15 months (Washington, San Antonio, Fenerbahce and Las Vegas), but her evident comfort is making a difference already for the Aces, who followed that Tuesday night win in Indiana with a rout of New York Wednesday.
“She's definitely energized,” Wilson said. “She keeps us going at all times. She's always on go. And that's something you need at point guard.”
And Laimbeer praised her defense, an underrated aspect of her game dating back to Washington. On display Wednesday, Plum kept pace with the speediest of New York guards like Bria Hartley and Brittany Boyd, deep into the second game of a back-to-back, on a day that began with a 4:30 AM bus ride to the airport in Indianapolis.
"I know myself. I know the work I put in. I know the type of player I am."
Laimbeer is embracing player development, a bit of a knock on him in New York, but he also sounded nearly giddy at how fast it's all coming together for his new team.
“We're growing,” Laimbeer said. “If we hit our stride—we can push the ball, we're playing solid defense, we've got more shooters now, we've got A'ja Wilson—we can score... this could be interesting times.”
And Plum is central to that growth. Don't expect that to change, even with Moriah Jefferson's looming return from a knee injury sometime next month. Laimbeer expressed an openness to playing Plum and Jefferson together—no sacrifice, considering Plum was every bit as efficient offensively off the ball her senior season in Washington. Perhaps in preparation, he ran out a lineup with Plum and Lindsay Allen late in the New York game.
Notably, Plum is doing all the things her critics questioned she could do at the WNBA level. All that's missing is the shooting accuracy, and no one doubts that will come, the feathery touch as pure as ever in pregame warmups, the range unlimited. All Plum really needed was a chance—to “play great defense, make shots, take care of the ball,” as she put it, not live up to some version of herself defined by anyone else.
“I can't let other people's opinions come in,” Plum said. “But you know, they look at stats. They look at playing time. They look at very different things. I know myself. I know the work I put in. I know the type of player I am. I'm just trying to help my team. If that makes me look like I am not getting any better, it's out of my hands.”